Scaling mountains: Nepal's aspirations for a climate-resilient sustainable future
Each year, usually between June and September, the annual summer monsoon sweeps across the southern plains of Nepal from the Bay of Bengal. Communities welcome the daily downpours, filling as they do the rivers and countryside and drenching the region’s thirsty rice paddies and vegetable crops.
The monsoon, however, can be a blessing or a curse. Too little rain, or too late, can leave crops ruined. Too much rain can see rivers overflow and mountain slopes collapse under the weight of the water.
In 2017, it was a case of too much, from east to the west of the country. In some areas, 17 inches of rain fell in just eight hours. Around 1.7 million people were affected, with 460,000 displaced from their homes, many with nowhere to go. Those most affected were poor, smallholder farmers.
An international response was mobilized, but the damage was great, with losses estimated at US$585 million and recovery needs at $705 million.
Climate change upon Nepal
Flooding is a common occurrence in Nepal and extreme rainfall events are a natural and accepted part of the landscape. However, climate change is projected to make such events more common.
Unfortunately, more frequent floods (along with associated landslides) are not the only hazards Nepal faces as a result of a warming planet. Climate change is also driving more frequent wildfires across the country, with devastating consequences for people, ecosystems, and species such as the endangered red panda.
Perhaps the greatest threat is that of Nepal’s melting glaciers, whose disappearance poses acute threats to communities living in the path of glacial lake outburst floods and the more than one billion people downstream who rely on their consistent seasonal runoff.
The threat of glacial lake outburst floods is increasing as temperatures in the Himalayan mountain ranges rise and glaciers melt, forming lakes filled with millions of cubic meters of water, soil, and rock. Outbursts can have catastrophic consequences for communities living downstream, taking lives and washing away livelihoods, assets, and infrastructure. In September 2020, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development and UNDP produced a report that 21 glacial lakes in Nepal are at risk of bursting.
The race to resilience
Despite significant constraints as a least developed country, Nepal has learned lessons and revolutionized its approach to disaster preparedness over the last decade. Its efforts have worked. Owing to improved planning, the death toll from the 2017 floods was low relative to past floods.
In the same way that Nepal has been scaling up disaster risk management – and in fact, closely intertwined with it – it has been prioritizing building resilience to climate change, linking it closely to development planning.
The country has continued to embrace an inclusive and bottom-up approach. In emphasizing Local Adaptation Plans for Action, the government is working closely with local institutions and marginalized communities to make sure the voices of indigenous and traditional groups, women, youth, and people with disabilities are heard and an integral part of the process.
Recognizing the specific vulnerabilities but also the capacities of women, the government has developed a comprehensive action plan to ensure they play an active role in responding to climate change challenges.
The country has installed early warning systems, scaled-up climate-smart agriculture, and has been among the pioneers of ecosystem-based solutions. Communities have played a key role in restoring forests.
The government has also been internationally recognized for its work to better manage financial resources to address climate change, to more accurately and transparently track relevant spending, particularly in the agriculture sector.
A UNDP-supported program promoting rural energy for rural livelihoods has implemented off-grid clean energy solutions such as the expansion of solar and hydro. The increased access to electricity has enabled remote villages to power classrooms, medical clinics, and businesses.
In a demonstration of their commitment to act decisively on climate change, Nepal submitted a revised set of climate commitments (known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) to the UNFCCC in December.
While the country’s first NDC, submitted in 2016, primarily emphasized climate adaptation, the new version sharpens its focus on emissions reductions and green initiatives, showing the relationship between the two. It sets bold new targets in line with Nepal national and sectoral priorities, including — for the first time — a vision for net-zero emissions by 2050 and the goal to increase the reliable supply of clean energy, with access for all, by 2030. It also extends its focus on gender equality and social inclusion.
Crucially, it contains the detail required to make the goals a reality: clearer costs, an investment plan, and an implementation roadmap.
While the transformations envisioned are not cheap – estimated to be at least $25 billion (conditional mitigation targets) and $3.4 billion (unconditional targets) over the coming decade, with much dependent on international support, the returns will be manifold.
On the global stage, Nepal has been a vocal advocate for climate action, calling for the full and effective implementation of the Paris Agreement and increased access to climate financing for developing countries. Extensive work lies ahead - and to achieve its goals, Nepal must pair its pledges, plans and national commitment with additional technical and financial support from the international community.
Crucially, however, the roadmap is in place. Once implemented, Nepal will be on the way to a climate-resilient sustainable future.